Learning how to hitch a ride is a necessary requirement when traveling in Guatemala. Generally, the bus will bring you close to your destination, but rarely at your doorstep. During our stay in El Ramate, I made a fifteen-mile trip to the town of Flores to find the nearest Internet cafe. Getting back to El Ramate turned out to be more challenging.
After boarding a bus in Flores, I was dropped off at a remote intersection with three miles yet to go. I started to get concerned as darkness would soon be approaching, and I had just read about some past problems in the area that occurred after dark. With no vehicles on the road, I started walking and soon came across a Pepsi truck making a delivery. With my limited Spanish skills, combined with body language and a smile, I was able to persuade the driver to give me a lift and a free Pepsi as we drove back to the small town.
A few days later we were faced with a larger challenge. At two in the afternoon, we were dropped off on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The map said there was a town there, but the town consisted of a roadside shack at an intersection in the countryside. We waited around for a couple of hours and became concerned as a few of our roadside companions tried to explain to us that there would be no more buses that day. It gets a little confusing sometimes because when we arrived, people told us there would be several more buses or rides. Apparently after 2:00 p.m., transportation options dramatically decline. The proprietor of the roadside shack offered to rent us his bedroom for $1.20. In an emergency I would have taken him up on his offer, but at this point we had met a Swiss couple in the same predicament. The room was too small and rugged with dirt floors and a tiny bed to squeeze in all four of us. So after thanking him for his generous offer, we went back to the road to find a ride. Eventually, we flagged down a pickup that was willing to stop and give us a ride to the nearest town some ten miles away. I gave him money for the ride and was pleasantly surprised when he gave me change, for I had not expected to get any, which happens often, and was just happy to avoid sleeping in someone’s pasture. The ride costs me 25 cents instead of 50 cents.
Early the following morning, we boarded another painted up school bus or "chicken bus" as they call them, because often you share the ride with farm animals on their way to market. Our route to Lanquin wound through the mountains with a narrow road often just wide enough for the bus, with tree branches brushing the sides. This became even more interesting during the sections of the road that were literally carved out of the side of the mountain. Half way to Lanquin on the road was a smashed up bus that had recently went over the edge and down a cliff. "Oh man," I said, "just what I didn't need to see." But luck was with us; after 6 hours, tired and dirty we rolled into Lanquin for the next several days.
As you travel by bus, you soon learn that it is best to take care of your personal needs before departure. Once the bus starts moving the breaks are unpredictable and finding facilities often takes some degree of creativity. I follow the lead of the locals, which generally takes me to a tree or bush. It is not a place for the shy or squeamish. For sure, a long bus trip becomes an endurance test that requires patience and a bit of faith. The roads are often rugged and unpaved, so you end up looking like one of those toy dogs people used to set in the back window of their car or a bobble-head attached to a jackhammer. But the best part is there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in the way of a new place to experience and explore or the new friends you meet along the way. In Lanquin we were rewarded with a swim in the amazing limestone pools of Semuc Champey. The naturally formed swimming pools were crystal clear and refreshing.
Recently, I met a woman by the name of Maggie, 22, in Antigua. Currently an office manager at a language school, she also previously worked at a travel agency and law office. She shared about her wish to one-day come to the states. Her motive was driven by economic opportunities and like many Latinos living there, a desire to send money home to help her family. Her comments to the ordinary people back in the states were these: "Stop the fighting and spend more time helping the small towns and the poor in America." She felt the power and capacity of the United States could be better served in helping others rather than fighting.
For me personally, it is a little disheartening to constantly encounter people who believe the U.S. “likes” war. I listen quietly and do my small part to ensure that not all are eager for such things, only those who profit from it.